Achacachi, Bolivia - After centuries of misery and discrimination, indigenous people across the region are flexing their political muscles, moving to wrest power from the largely European ruling elite but also dreaming of an independent state.
Such a state could look a lot like this bleak town in the highlands, where the police and central government authorities were chased out long ago, their offices destroyed by seething Aymara Indians. The Bolivian flag has given way to the seven-color Wipala, the flag of the Indian nation. Roads linking this landlocked country to the world were also blockaded frequently, a lever to prod the government to meet ever-tougher demands.
The political awakening has extended into Peru, where indigenous people have also closed highways and taken over some small towns. In Ecuador, groups of the Pachakutik movement have pledged to step up protests meant to force the resignation of President Lucio Gutiérrez, whom they helped to put in power but who has fallen out of favor over his free-market policies.
It is in Bolivia, the most indigenous country in Latin America, where they hold the most influence. One crossroads for the two visions of Bolivia will come Sunday, when a referendum is held on the issue of how to use the country's abundant natural gas, either exporting it in the hope of conventional economic development, or keeping it for use at home. The outcome could ignite new protests unless President Carlos Mesa is able to finesse the issue through his complicated five-question ballot.